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Whatever about What Averil Did Next, what about the future of the Soldiers of Destiny?

How will the party cope with the sudden loss of Averil Power – aka 50% of its female parliamentarians?

Donal O'Keeffe

THIS SHOULD HAVE been a good week for Micheál Martin.

Bobby Aylward’s Carlow-Kilkenny victory in the early hours of Sunday morning – the seventh by-election since the 2011 general election and Fianna Fáil’s first win – had finally given the Fianna Fáil leader something to quieten his critics. He appeared on RTE’s The Week In Politics looking happier and more relaxed than he has in years.

A day is obviously a long time in politics, because High Noon on Monday rolled around and Averil Power walked out onto the Plinth and dropped the bombshell that she was leaving Fianna Fáil and, with her the party was losing 50% of its female parliamentarians.

Power accused Fianna Fail of being “cynical and cowardly”

A visibly-upset Power said her party’s watery support for the marriage equality referendum – “cynical and cowardly” – had been the last straw for her. Saying that she had been the only Fianna Fáil Oireachtas member to mount an effective canvass, Power claimed she had been laughed at, shouted down and regarded as “crazy” when she suggested TDs and senators wear Yes badges on the Carlow-Kilkenny canvass and actively campaign for the referendum. Describing Fianna Fáil as a party which “lacks vision, courage and leadership”, Power launched an unmerciful kick in the direction of the leadership, saying “Micheál has become a leader without any followers”.

Fianna Fáil sources – and the party leader – shot back that Power’s shock resignation had less to do with the referendum and a lot more to do with her wish to be Fianna Fáil’s only general election candidate in Dublin Bay North and her unhappiness at the prospect of possibly having to share the ticket with Sean Haughey.

Backlash over the shock departure 

For Micheál Martin – enjoying a badly-needed morale boost with Aylward’s election, even if his party’s opinion poll ratings still remain stubbornly becalmed in the high teens – Power’s timing could hardly have been worse. In fact, listening to him in interviews throughout the day, as he pointed out that he had gone out a limb to get Power a Seanad seat, it was hard not to think he was taking his star pupil’s resignation very personally. Clearly stung by the fact that Power had not spoken with him before resigning, he called her language “personal” and “nasty and vindictive”.

It was no secret that Power had clashed with her leader on a number of occasions, but she and Martin were both seen as being on the progressive wing of the party and seemed ad idem on most issues. Even if her decision to quit was influenced by local considerations – and there are always local considerations – Power’s unhappiness at the party’s behaviour during the marriage equality referendum seems completely genuine, and her harshest critics would admit that her own commitment to the referendum was little short of heroic.

On Morning Ireland, Fianna Fáil TDs were muttering conspiracy theories. Galway East TD Colm Keaveney spoke about an ‘agenda in some print media’ to see Micheál Martin – who is unquestionably one of the finest debaters in national politics – taken out as party leader before the next election to give Enda Kenny – who is, charitably, not one of the finest debaters in national politics – a clear run at re-election.

Power has indicated – not definitively – that she now intends to run for the Dáil in the next election as an independent in Dublin Bay North, but whatever about What Averil Did Next, what about the Soldiers of Destiny? What about the fact that Fianna Fáil now has, in Senator Mary White, only one female member of the Oireachtas? Fianna Fáil needs women, as the commentator Noel Whelan put it, and it desperately needs to get TDs elected in Dublin. One deeply cynical party insider suggested last night that, in the short-term at least, we can expect to see female councillors like Deirdre Heney and Kate Feeney “in front of everything”.

To be fair, Martin has rebuilt a party that was all but dead 

In the longer term, what does the future hold for Fianna Fáil? And does that future involve Micheál Martin? One of Power’s most stinging criticisms of Martin was that he was “a decent individual but he’s not an effective leader”. “Poisoned chalice” is a phrase often applied to the leadership of Fianna Fáil since their decimation at the 2011 general election and many have noted that Martin could have joined so many of his former colleagues and sailed off into a multi-pensioned sunset.

Martin has, to be fair to him, rebuilt a party which was, in 2011, all but dead and buried. At that time many questioned whether Fianna Fáil would survive at all. That question has been answered, as it now looks likely the party will probably get a minimum of 30 seats the next time out. The greater, existential question which has not been answered is whether Fianna Fáil deserves to survive.

What is Fianna Fáil actually for? For generations, the simple answer to that question was always “Fianna Fáil”. Power may be right to question Martin’s effectiveness as a leader – his softly-softly approach to man-management has seen rivals like Michael McGrath, Eamon Ó Cuiv and John McGuinness repeatedly and publicly defy him. It’s hard, though, to see what a tougher leader might do differently. After all, when you have only 20 TDs, the loss of even one would be a catastrophe. These days, the answer to “what is Fianna Fáil for?” seems to be “every man for himself”.

Averil Power claimed that she left Fianna Fáil in frustration at a return to old-school Fianna Fáil cute hoorishness. Sean Haughey, who is now the presumptive favourite to be Fianna Fáil’s candidate in Dublin Bay North was asked this morning whether he voted Yes in the marriage equality referendum. He declined to comment. That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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